Air Power and the “Accidents” of War: Part 2

July 14th, 2007 - by admin

Tom Engelhardt / – 2007-07-14 20:46:34

Air War: Iraq

Striking as this rise in civilian deaths may be for Afghanistan, it gains extra importance for what it signals about the future of Iraq. Afghanistan is, in a sense, the maimed, defeathered canary in the mine of American air-power.

In Iraq, as all now know, the US military has reached its on-the-ground limits. With approximately 156,000 troops surged into place (and many tens of thousands of armed private security contractors, or mercenaries, surging into that country as well), the occupation forces have, it seems, reached their maximum numbers. By next spring at the latest, unless tours of duty in Iraq are lengthened from an already extended 15 months to 18 months — a notoriously unpopular move for a notorious unpopular administration — the President’s “surge,” like some tide, will have to recede.

Downsizing, if not withdrawal, will arrive whether anyone wants it to or not. In fact, as Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times has reported, US commanders in Iraq already assume that such a downsizing is on the way; that, by fall, Congress will impose some kind of timetable for a partial withdrawal. They are adjusting their “surge” tactics accordingly.

With the President’s approval ratings sinking into the mid-20% range, senior Republican senators, including Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Pete Domenici, and possibly even John Warner are jumping the administration’s Iraqi ship (or, at least, edging toward the rail). Pressure is building in Congress and within the Republican Party for a change of course. Bush himself has stopped promising Americans “victory,” and is instead pathetically begging for “patience” on the home front until “the job is done.”

The next stage of the war in Iraq is, in a sense, already in sight. While that might seem like mildly encouraging news to the ever-increasing numbers of Americans who want to see it all over, it should give pause to Iraqis, who are sure to be on the receiving end of what such a partial withdrawal will mean.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jochi Dreazen and Greg Jaffe, for instance, recently reported on planning for an ongoing occupation of Iraq by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and “allies in the Bush administration” (“In Strategy Shift, Gates Envisions Iraq Troop Cuts”).

The Secretary of Defense, they revealed, is “seeking to build bipartisan support for a long-term US presence in Iraq by moving toward withdrawing significant numbers of troops…. by the end of President Bush’s term.” He is in search of a new Washington Consensus — “a modern-day version of President Harry Truman’s ‘Cold War consensus,'” as he puts it — in which a far smaller US force (possibly 30,000-40,000 troops) would “operate out of large bases far from Iraq’s major cities” for years, even decades, to come.

There’s nothing new in this, of course. Such a “Plan B” was, in fact, “Plan A” when the Bush administration first rumbled into Baghdad in April 2003. The administration’s top officials always expected to draw-down US forces quickly into the 30,000 range and garrison them in four or more enormous bases outside of Iraq’s urban areas. This was the occupation they planned for, not the one they got. It now goes under the rubric of the “Korea model.”

If such a plan were indeed put into operation in 2008-2009, it would surely mean one thing that is almost never mentioned in Washington, or even by critics of the war: a significant increase in the use of US air power.

Actually, bombs are already being dropped in Iraq in 2007 at almost twice the rate of the previous year. In this sense, the Afghan model is available as an example of things to come, as is the historical model of the Vietnam War in the period in which President Richard Nixon was employing what might now be called the “Gates Plan.”

It was then called “Vietnamization.” Nixon was intent on withdrawing all American ground combat troops, while leaving behind tens of thousands of American advisors, who were to continue training the South Vietnamese military, as well as sizeable numbers of troops to guard our enormous bases in that country. Not surprisingly, that period saw an unprecedented escalation of the air war over South Vietnam. It was a time of unparalleled (but under-reported) brutality, destruction, and carnage in the Vietnamese countryside.

Any similar “Iraqification” plan would surely have an equivalent effect, the gap in manpower being plugged by air power. And the Washington “consensus” Gates hopes for is already forming. The two leading Democratic candidates for President, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, adhere to it. Both call for “withdrawal” from Iraq, but define withdrawal (as Gates would) as the “redeployment” of US “combat brigades” (possibly less than half the American forces in that country at present).

In other words, we are almost guaranteed that, either this winter or in the spring of 2008 (as the presidential election looms), some kind of drawdown, surely to be headlined as a “withdrawal” plan, will begin and that significantly lower levels of troops will be supported by a rise in air strikes — and in Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, this means the bombing not of peasant villages but of urban neighborhoods.

This, in turn, means that we should prepare ourselves for a rise in “incidents,” in “mistakes,” in the “inadvertent” or “errant” death of civilians in escalating numbers. Whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, the formula, with a guerrilla war, is simple and unavoidable: Air Power = Civilian Deaths. Or put another way, “Incidents” ‘R Us.

A History of Mistakes
Let’s start with the nature of modern war. The very phrase “collateral damage” should be tossed onto the junk heap of history. For the last century, war has increasingly targeted civilians. Between World War I and the 1990s, according to Richard M. Garfield and Alfred I. Neugut in War and Public Health, civilian deaths as a percentage of all deaths rose from 14% to 90%.

These figures are obviously approximate at best, but the trend line is clear. In a sense, in modern warfare, it’s the military deaths that often are the “collateral damage”; civilian deaths — “including women and children” — turn out to be central to the project. The Lancet study’s figures for Iraq indicate as much.

If modern war has largely been war against noncombatant populations, then the airplane — which, even more than artillery, represented war from a distance — was its ultimate terror weapon. The invention of the atomic bomb, the culmination of the dreams of air power as an “ultimate weapon,” signaled this in an unforgettable way.

In the post-World War II years, the wars of the superpowers migrated to the “peripheries” where they could be fought with less fear of a nuclear holocaust, of, as American first-strike plans had it, the deaths of hundreds of millions of noncombatants across what was known as the “Communist bloc.”

Those wars began to be fought largely against low-tech forces, propelled by powerful allegiances often to national entities that did not yet exist. In those guerilla wars of “national liberation,” the enemy combatants were invariably mixed in with civilian populations, which both provided support and a kind of protection. Air war against such forces, then, had to be a war against noncombatant populations. “Mistakes” would be constant.

Of course, even in World War II, the deaths of civilians in London in the Blitz were no mistake; nor were the later deaths of the citizens of Hamburg or Dresden; or the inhabitants of Tokyo and 59 other fire-bombed Japanese cities as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were atomized. The deaths of city dwellers in Pyongyang in the early 1950s were not a mistake; nor were the mass killings of peasants in South Vietnam; nor Laotian villagers on the Plain of Jars; nor the citizens of Hanoi over Christmas, 1972.

When, in 1970, after a conversation with President Nixon, Henry Kissinger passed on to White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig by phone the president’s orders for “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia,” using “anything that flies on anything that moves,” it was not a mistake (nor, undoubtedly, was the “unintelligible comment” on the transcript that “sounded like Haig laughing.”)

Here’s the simplest truth of air power, then or now. No matter how technologically “smart” our bombs or missiles, they will always be ordered into action by us dumb humans; and if, in addition, they are released into villages filled with civilians going about their lives, or heavily populated urban neighborhoods where insurgents mix with city dwellers (who may or may not support them), these weapons will, by the nature of things, by policy decision, kill noncombatants.

If an AC-130 or an Apache helicopter strafes an urban block or a village street where people below are running, some carrying weapons and believed to be “suspected insurgents,” it will kill civilians. The disadvantage of “distant war” is that you normally have no way of knowing why someone is running, or why they are carrying a weapon, or usually who they really are.

Once Americans find themselves engaged in a guerrilla war, the urge is naturally to bring to bear military strengths and limit casualties — and the fear is always of sending American troops into an “urban jungle,” or simply a jungle, where the surroundings will serve to equalize a disproportionate American advantage in the weaponry of high-tech destruction. In distant war, particularly wars where Americans alone control the skies and can fly in them with relative impunity, the trade-off is clear indeed: our soldiers for their civilian dead “including women and children.”

This is not an aberrant side effect of air war but its heart and soul. The airplane is a weapon of war, but it is also a weapon of terror — and it is meant to be. From the beginning, it was used not to “win over” enemy populations — after all, how could that be done from the distant skies? — but to crush or terrorize them into submission. (It has seldom worked that way.)

Then, there’s another factor that has to be added in. What if you don’t really care — not all that much anyway — who is running in the street below you?

Since 1945, American air power has regularly been used to police the imperial borders of the planet. It has, that is, been released against people of color, against what used to be called the Third World. (Serbia in 1999 was the sole exception to this rule.)

As Afghan President Karzai put the matter in response to recent reports of civilian casualties in his country: “We want to cooperate with the international community. We are thankful for their help to Afghanistan, but that does not mean that Afghan lives have no value. Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such.” (His bitter comment eerily reflects another from the Vietnam era, more than thirty years gone. “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient” — so said former commander of US forces in Vietnam General William Westmoreland in 1974.)

It may be that American administrations would have been no less willing to release their bombs and missiles on white noncombatant populations (as was the case with Germany in World War II); but it can at least be said that, for the last half-century-plus, air power has functionally acted as an armed form of racism, that the sense of “their lives” as cheaper, even if seldom spoken aloud, has made it easier to use the helicopter, the bomber, the Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drone.

The fact is that air war always cheapens human life. After all, from the heights, if seen at all, people must have something of the appearance of scurrying insects. It is the nature of such war, and an ingrained racism, seldom mentioned any more, only adds to it.

Not so long from now, by the way, we may not even be able to use the term “air power” without qualification. We may instead be talking about “distant war” via the air, for the nature of air power itself is beginning to blur. Artillery always represented a form of distant war, but the latest version of artillery, a new weapons system evidently in operation in Afghanistan, the High Mobility Artillery Rockets, or HIMARS, brings into play an artillery man’s version of air war. This truck-mounted rocket system fires its weapons into the atmosphere, where they are “guided to the target by either GPS or lasers.”

According to the Washington Post’s William Arkin, HIMARS “can be configured to shoot a wide array of rockets and missiles, from cluster bombs to a single missile system with a range up to 300 kilometers.” One or more of these rockets may have been used in the Paktika attack that killed seven children and seems to have been used in the killing of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah in mid-May.

Beyond all else, there is the American attitude towards air power itself — and, beyond that, toward modern war when fought on the planetary “peripheries” (even if those peripheries turn out to be the oil heartlands of our world). From World War II, through Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, our air wars have always visited death and destruction on civilians.

In a future in which it is highly unlikely that American troops will ever fight Russians or Chinese or the soldiers of any other major power in set-piece battles, imperial war is likely to continue to take place in heavily populated civilian areas against guerrillas and insurgents of various sorts. Don’t take my word for it. The Pentagon thinks so too and is engaged in extensive planning for such future wars — involving weapons that leave its soldiers “at a distance” in the burgeoning urban slums of our planet.

So perhaps a modicum of honesty is in order. Iraq and Afghanistan are already charnel houses, zones of butchery for the innocent. In both lands, it’s possible to make a simple prediction: As bad as things already are, if present trends continue, if the “Korea model” becomes the model, it’s going to get worse. We have yet to see anything like the full release of American air power in Afghanistan, no less in Iraq, but don’t count it out.

We in the US recognize butchery when we see it — the atrocity of the car bomb, the chlorine-gas truck bomb, the beheading. These acts are obviously barbaric in nature. But our favored way of war — war from a distance — has, for us, been pre-cleansed of barbarism.

Or rather its essential barbarism has been turned into a set of “errant incidents,” of “accidents,” of “mistakes” repeatedly made over more than six decades. Air power is, in the military itself, little short of a religion of force, impermeable to reason, to history, to examples of what it does (and what it is incapable of doing). It is in our interest not to see air war as a — possibly the — modern form of barbarism.

Ours is, of course, a callous and dishonest way of thinking about war from the air (undoubtedly because it is the form of barbarism, unlike the car bomb or the beheading, that benefits us). It is time to be more honest. It is time for reporters to take the words “incident,” “mistake,” “accident,” “inadvertent,” “errant,” and “collateral damage” out of their reportorial vocabularies when it comes to air power. At the level of policy, civilian deaths from the air should be seen as “advertent.” They are not mistakes or they wouldn’t happen so repeatedly. They are the very givens of this kind of warfare.

This is, or should be, obvious. If we want to “withdraw” from Iraq (or Afghanistan) via the Gates Plan, we should at least be clear about what that is likely to mean — the slaughter of large numbers of civilians “including women and children.” And it will not be due to a series of mistakes or incidents; it will not be errant or inadvertent. It will be policy itself. It will be the Washington — and in the end the American — consensus.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books).

[Note to Tomdispatch readers: Air power has been perhaps the worst reported aspect of the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This website has, however, covered it as regularly, even doggedly, as possible. I’ve written about it since at least 2004. Independent reporter Dahr Jamail, sociologist Michael Schwartz, and Tomdispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse have all offered contributions on the subject.
In addition, Seymour Hersh wrote a piece in the New Yorker, “Up in the Air,” in 2005 that remains predictive on air power in Iraq and a must-read. Just recently, Glenn Greenwald at dealt incisively with a single incident of civilian deaths from the air in Iraq and how our press covered it; while Ira Chernus at the Commondreams website, took up civilian deaths in Afghanistan with his usual acumen. I recommend both pieces. Someday, it will occur to mainstream reporters to do the same and then we’ll know we’ve entered a different moment, a different world.]

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

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